Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Parisian - Book Review

I’ve read several beautifully written memoirs by Palestinians touching on the events that led to the creation of the state of Israel. This is however the first English language novel of that period, I’ve come across. The Parisian is an ambitious historical fiction work with a main anchor in Nablus in Palestine from early in the twentieth century to the early days of the Arab Revolt in the late 1930’s. A secondary anchor is France and life in France under the First World War. 

Isabella Hammad is a master painter of settings, her beautiful lyrical prose breathes life in places. Hammad transports the readers to Montepillier gardens, streets and houses, and to the dinner parties and the sophistication of an affluent segment of the French society. With equal mastery Hammad takes the reader to Nablus and the rugged mountains around it, the olive groves, the crowded homes and the bustling streets. 

Midhat Kamel, the central character of the novel, a Nabulsi son to a merchant who is sent to France for education during the war years and comes back to live in Palestine in the turbulent years following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and subsequent British Mandate over Palestine. While the reader gets to know a lot about this central character, he remains aloof, distant even after some 550 pages. The other characters of the novel are sketched by Hammad around Midhat, most are not fully developed beyond their physical appearance and their interactions related to Midhat. 

Hammad displays great knowledge of history, the novel recreates the early days of the Jewish immigarstion into Palestine and beautifully crafts the Palestinian search and development of their identity: Syrian, Arab, Palestinian, Muslim. Hammad humanized the various adversaries, the Jewish immigrants were not made out to be the baddies nor were the Samaritans or other Arabs. The Turks, the French and the British were painted as the cruel masters. 

The part of the story novel that deal with Qassam revolt was particularly fascinating. The tension between the urban city dwellers and the felaheen peasantry was well portrayed. I particularly found Hammad treatment of the issue of women veiling clever. After city women started shedding the veil, they were forced to adopt it again by the adherents of Qassam. This part of the novel reminded me of the beautiful memoir of Afaf Kenfani who viewed Palestinian women struggle for freedom from men as ultimately now less than the struggle against Zionism. 

The breadth of the novel and its adherence to the generally undisputed events of history may have made it difficult for Hammad to develop her characters and plot more fully. At the end we have a beautifully crafted  impressionist painting of characters on top of a vivid historical photograph. 

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